THE GUT-WRENCHING STORY OF ONE UKRAINE BOWLING CENTER OPERATOR

By any measurement, the Nikolsky shopping center in the eastern Ukraine city of Kharkiv was a huge success. It opened in May 2021 with a 95% occupancy rate — in the middle of a pandemic — and attracted more than 1 million visitors during its first three weeks of operation. The top level of the mall featured a food court, a children’s play area, movie theaters and a bowling-based family entertainment center called Lucky Strike.

The BudHouse Group helped develop the shopping center and operated Lucky Strike, one of its four FECs in Ukraine overseen by Igor Plokhov, who was based in the capital city of Kiev. Plokhov had taken a special interest in the development of the venue in Kharkiv, since he had grown up in that city.

The business model called for a mix of sport and recreational bowling. The center had a solid league base and regularly hosted Ukrainian Bowling Federation tournaments. Children’s birthday parties provided a significant revenue stream, as did corporate events. The management team included both a chef and a bar manager, who cooperatively developed a food-and-beverage program that accounted for 60% of the center’s revenues.

But on March 9, the Russian Army, on the orders of President Vladimir Putin, bombed the Nikolsky shopping center, badly damaging virtually every business inside. Lucky Strike was not spared, and significant roof damage left it susceptible to further damage from the elements.

Plokhov, 42, graduated from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. He has been with the BudHouse Group for 10 years, and said that Lucky Strike is considered the most successful bowling chain in Ukraine. Another of its venues, in Kherson-Fabrika, also was damaged by Russian bombing.

Plokhov said that there had been talk about the Russians invading for months.

“Foreign intelligence warned that it was a real menace,” he said. “But we did not expect that it was possible in the 21st century.”

Even so, a contingency plan was developed for the entire chain with an emphasis placed on getting employees to safety quickly.

“When the war started, we packed our bags in five minutes and left Kiev,” Plokhov said. “We avoided main roads and managed to get to the Polish border quite fast. When the Russian missiles hit the mall in Kharkiv, my family had already been in Warsaw for two weeks.”

Ever since the invasion, Plokhov has spent all of his waking hours on helping the people who did not flee and on other humanitarian efforts.

“My first priority is our employees,” Plokhov said. “In the first week of the war we mostly concentrated on getting people evacuated. Now we are participating in many initiatives for humanitarian help inside and outside Ukraine. Some people went to the army to defend our motherland, some of them are staying in attacked regions and spending days in bomb shelters, sometimes without electricity, food or water. Some of them fled to other parts of Europe and became refugees. I put all my energy and effort into helping and supporting them.”

Concentrating on the human aspect helps keep Plokhov from dwelling on how much business has been lost at the center in Kharkiv, where special attention was placed on the restaurant and bar to motivate mall visitors to stop by.

“When we were developing the concept of the venue, we knew we were going to be on the same level as the food court, including a McDonald’s,” Plokhov said. “We decided to set up a casual dining restaurant in order to stand out and invited a chef to join our team. We put a lot of effort in developing real tasty food while maintaining short cooking times.”

All bowling in Ukraine is sold by the hour, so a 40-minute ticket time for someone who had purchased an hour of bowling would not work. The mix of pizzas and Ukrainian finger foods proved to be a hit.

Being located on the same mall level as the movie theaters presented another opportunity.

“The path from the elevator and escalator to the cinema takes people right past the bowling center,” Plokhov said. “People come a little bit in advance when going to see a movie, so we had an opportunity to sell some tasty drinks to people before or after. That’s why we made the bar very attractive from the shopping mall gallery, and hired a bar manager to pay special attention to the cocktail list and bring in craft beers.”

While helping others, Plokhov must also care for his own wife, their 9-month-old daughter, and a 4-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. He had been devoting a great deal of attention to his eldest child, enrolling her in an advanced English-speaking kindergarten and introducing her to athletics.

“Now, all her life is broken,” Plokhov said. “All my intentions and plans are cancelled. We do not know in which country we will end up, or which language the kids should learn. We don’t know what kind of life they should be prepared for.”

Still, despite the disruption in his life and the trauma brought on by the war, Plokhov considers himself fortunate.

“Compared to the citizens who have stayed in Ukraine, we are quite good,” he said. “I can’t even imagine us running up and down to the bomb shelters with an infant.

“Every day, we try to help someone,” he added. “Relatives, friends, colleagues, the army, strangers, foundations, volunteers. And you think that it is not enough, about how much more is needed. You feel small and helpless.

“It’s hard to fit in your head. It’s so scary to think about what is happening, and I find tears in my eyes. A man shouldn’t cry.”

— Bob Johnson

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View a picture of Igor Plokhov and “before and after” photos of Lucky Strike — which won an award in the 37th Bowling Center Architecture and Design Awards — in the May issue of BCM.

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